How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Energy
On March 18th, 2016, Gallup ran an alarming headline: “For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy.” Overall, support lies at 44% for and 54% against. When divided by political party, the results become more alarming, with 34% of Democrats and 46% independents favoring nuclear energy compared to 53% of Republicans. In theory, nuclear energy should gather strong bipartisan support. Its role in fighting climate change should energize the left, while job opportunities stemming from the production and operation of new plants would please members of both parties looking to funnel federal funds to their districts and states to aid in their reëlection. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Gallup poll posits out that this drop in support for nuclear energy is likely in part due to dropping gas prices at the time of polling, an assertion that is up for debate.
Regardless of the reason for the drop in support, nuclear energy has long been plagued by both safety concerns and a general lack of understanding. Advanced nuclear energy solves these safety concerns, and a strong federal commitment to nuclear power combined with nuclear regulatory reform could turn the United States into a world leader in clean energy production.
The centrist think tank Third Way has consistently been a part of the advanced nuclear conversation by putting forward policy solutions aimed at easing the production of new reactor designs. Their work was instrumental in the introduction of both S.2795 and H.R. 4979 in the 114th Congress (2015-2017), both bipartisan bills aimed at modernizing the nuclear regulatory process. The current regulatory process that is administered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission normally takes place in the final stages of building and is designed primarily for existing light-water reactor designs, which have been operating since the 1950s. As a result, construction of these reactors is fairly standardized. This is not the case with new reactor designs, some of which have not even been built yet. The Senate’s bill, the more robust of the two, institutes a new review process that would provide an opportunity for regulatory feedback throughout, with the goal of building a passable reactor from the earliest stages of construction. Other recommendations include maintaining and increasing funding to cost-sharing programs like the Department of Energy’s Gateway for Advanced Innovation in Nuclear initiative launched under former energy secretary Ernest Moniz and opening up energy department facilities to advanced nuclear companies for testing new materials. A full list of these recommendations, explained in more detail, can be found here.
Events like those at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima Daiichi are burned into public consciousness as cautionary tales for the use of nuclear energy. These concerns are valid, as nuclear safety has been a concern from the start. However, sufficiently advanced nuclear power technology is able to satisfy many of the concerns that the public has regarding its use. A key difference between older light-water reactors and newer designs is newer designs’ use of what is called passive safety. Put simply, they cool themselves in the event of a loss of power to the reactor. This is in contrast to current light-water reactors, which require fresh water to be constantly pumped through to keep the fuel rods cool.
Among the most promising designs for advanced reactors is that of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), a type of molten salt reactor that uses thorium instead of uranium. Originally developed in the 1960s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, LFTRs were scrapped in favor of uranium light-water reactors, which were both easier to produce and produced waste that could be used in nuclear weapons. Today, nuclear advocates have different goals, which dovetail well with thorium-based reactors. The first and most important of these goals is safety. The most easily understandable safety feature of LFTRs is a freeze plug, which sits in a tube that connects the reactor core filled with inert molten salts to emergency dump tanks. This plug is actively cooled by a fan, and, in the event of a loss of power to the reactor, the freeze plug melts and drains the salts into the dump tanks where they will slowly cool on their own.
The second is the efficiency of LFTRs, which far surpass that of traditional uranium light-water reactors. These reactors not only use far less material to produce the same amount of energy; they also produce less nuclear waste. The waste that is produced only needs to be stored for about 300 years, whereas traditional nuclear waste must be stored for thousands of years. Additionally, work is being performed to store the waste for only about ten years, at which point it could theoretically be used in medical and commercial applications. As an added bonus to dramatically increased efficiency, thorium is also more abundant in nature than uranium. An estimated 1.8 million tons of thorium are located on Lemhi Pass on the Montana-Nevada border alone.
While LFTRs have tremendous potential, they are not the only advanced reactor designs that are currently being developed. Other technologies include reactors that use uranium pebbles instead of fuel rods, reactors cooled with helium gas and lead, and even reactors that breed—that is, they put out more nuclear material than they take in, which would essentially turn nuclear power into a source of renewable energy. There is also the possibility of a fusion reactor. Given that fusion is regarded as a technology that is perpetually about thirty years away, this seems unlikely. But, the creation of successful fusion reactors would provide a significant source of power that would be up to the task of solving many of the energy issues that the world currently faces or could face in the future, including that of interstellar travel. A summary of these other types of reactors can be found here.
Finally, there is the problem of what to do with nuclear waste. While countries like Finland and France have been able to build large and technologically sophisticated repositories, the United States’ nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been stalled for years, though that is beginning to change. Although the Trump administration is exceedingly friendly to fossil fuel interests, there has also been a renewed interest in Yucca Mountain from the administration. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry visited the site in late March and announced that President Trump requested money in his FY18 budget to get development and licensing moving again. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has also restarted hearings on the future of the site.
Reforming our current nuclear regulatory process and updating our nuclear infrastructure is a monumental task, and one that provides many outs along the way for politicians who lack either the knowledge or willpower to make it happen. The far-left will equate nuclear power with nuclear weapons and recent accidents while the increased safety of newer reactors, while it remains to be seen if the right can listen long enough to realize that no matter how much they love coal, coal mining jobs are not coming back. Even though the center is thinking in American politics, I still hold the belief that there are enough rational members on both sides of the aisle to see nuclear for the opportunity that it is. Nuclear would provide far more job opportunities than coal, from the building of the reactor and its daily operation to the mining of uranium and thorium. The maintenance of the waste is labor intensive as well, with France’s two sites alone currently employing 11,000 workers. That number alone should provide motivation to take another look at the site, without even taking into account the positive environmental effects.
Even though the current administration loves fossil fuels, I think that the growing and vocal, contingent of members of Congress that support nuclear modernization could provide the push needed for President Trump to get on board with nuclear modernization. The current administration is desperate for significant achievements going into the 2018 and 2020 elections. The revitalization of the American nuclear industry is one of their best opportunities for one.
The views presented in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.
Photo: "Nuclear power plant "Isar" at night" originally taken by Bjoern Schwarz (CC BY 2.0) for Flickr. No changes were made. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.